Perfect is a moving target, that’s if it’s even a thing. We are so quick and nonchalant in peppering our everyday conversations with the word “perfect”. That was a perfect meal. My son is a perfect student. I want the perfect relationship. Most of us were raised to be perfectionists, and were educated in schools that publicly rewarded the students who achieved the highest grades.
All this would be fine if we also taught our kids the dictionary meaning of perfection, and then let them decide if they want to pursue that path for the rest of their lives. Look it up for yourself, and you’ll be amazed by how extreme and results focused the definitions are. Some definitions that stood out for me are, as good as it is possible to be, faultless, flawless, and without equal. Thankfully, some wise person also added, “too good to be true”, but that one is easily lost amongst all the other shiny words like: unrivaled, unequaled and matchless. So what’s the problem with perfection and being a perfectionist? According to Brene Brown, arguably the foremost expert on studies of perfectionism, “Perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis”, – strong words that she backs up with a great deal of data driven evidence.
One of the biggest problems with perfectionism, is many of us believe it’s the primary reason we have achieved any level of success. In truth, real success in any area of our lives is built on a foundation of time, attention, and of course, deliberate practice. There are no hacks. We can not strongarm, or guilt and shame our way to long term, sustainable success.
Perfectionism is a never ending, exhausting hustle to prove our worthiness, and most of us can’t keep it up past mid-life. One of the biggest drivers of the infamous mid-life crisis, is our lack of ability and desire to stay on this hamster wheel.
In my own life, I’ve experienced the high cost of this habit, and did not even question its validity until it literally drove me to my knees. There was a time that I believed if I couldn’t do something perfectly, then I shouldn’t do it at all. That’s easy when we have only one or two things we need to manage, like school and a boyfriend, or work and a sport. But what happens when you finally build the life that you’ve been dreaming of? The one that is rich and complex with all the things and the people. What happens when life throws curveballs – as it inevitably does – like divorce, single parenting, horrible bosses, and economic turndowns? That’s when our friend, perfectionism, shows us the other side of itself – a side that is nothing short of brutal. In my early forties, I was navigating full time single parenting, a full time corporate job, a network of social as well as intimate relationships, running, and most importantly, never letting anyone see me sweat! In other words, not only was it imperative that I do everything perfectly, but also that I make it appear effortless. As Brown says in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?” Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I hit the ground – hard.
My first window into the possibility that there might be another option available, was presented to me when strolling the isles at Borders (when bookstores still existed) and seeing a book titled, “A Good Enough Parent”. What’s that, I thought? Is it even possible to be a good enough parent, and if so, why would anyone want to aspire to that? I almost felt ashamed for that parent, even though I couldn’t even imagine her. The thought of others seeing me as good enough, as opposed to perfect, in any area of my life, simply seemed unacceptable. But as often happens, my curiosity won the day and I bought the book. I was now open to considering that there is a whole different mindset from which I can potentially build a life, that included all the things I love, but without the high cost I was paying in stress, anxiety, and ultimately physical illness. Slowly, I began the practice of being good enough in all areas of my life, not just parenting. Much to my surprise, my kids didn’t turn into criminals, my boss still appreciated my work, my parents still loved me, my significant other didn’t even notice the change (a good thing), and life began to feel lighter, more joyful, and relaxed. The dreadful constant feeling that at any moment, one or more of the balls I was keeping up in the air was going to drop with terrible consequences, lessened considerably. In time and through practice, I found that I was able to be far more present in my everyday life; a critical shift that had me experiencing a richer and more connected life.
It’s not easy to shift our mindset and our actions to good enough-ism. It goes against every value most of us are raised with. When I introduce this concept to my clients, they tend to dismiss it quickly and without much thought. They think I’m encouraging them to be mediocre at work, at home, and in their relationships. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am in the business of helping people optimize their personal and professional lives, and as such, it’s imperative that my clients and I, get to the heart of the beliefs (always limiting, and often false) that are getting in the way of achieving their goals. No one has the goal of being mediocre, but almost everyone has the goal of feeling good, while on the path to achieving their goals. Perfectionism gets in the way of that, and in my opinion, embracing the practice of being good enough is enormously helpful.
I’ll close with Jane Fonda’s sage advice, “Good enough is good enough. We are not supposed to be perfect. We’re supposed to be complete”.